January 31, 2009 in Nation/World

Iraq locked down as voting begins

Officials ban traffic, impose curfew and close borders
By BRIAN MURPHY Associated Press
 
Tags:Iraq

BAGHDAD – Iraq imposed a nationwide security lockdown as voting began today in key regional elections with blanket measures not seen since the deadliest years of the insurgency, underscoring the high stakes for Iraqi leaders desperate to portray stability after nearly six years of conflict.

Although violence is down sharply – and with pre-election attacks relatively limited – authorities were unwilling to take any risks. They ordered cars off city streets, sealed borders and closed airports.

The top-to-bottom precautions show that the consequences run deeper than just the outcome of today’s ballots for 440 seats on influential provincial councils across Iraq.

Voting carried off without major attacks or charges of irregularities would give a critical boost for Iraqi authorities as the U.S. military hands over more responsibilities. But serious bloodshed or voting chaos could steal momentum from supporters of a fast-paced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops next year.

The election is also a possible dress rehearsal for bigger showdowns later this year when the U.S.-allied government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could face challenges for power.

“Our security is very well prepared,” said deputy interior minister Iden Khalid.

Yet the full-scale clampdown also brought back an aura of some of Iraq’s most unstable days, including 2005 elections, which many observers believe set the stage for sectarian violence a year later.

Traffic bans were ordered for Baghdad and other major cities. The closely monitored frontiers with Iran and Syria were among borders that were sealed. A nighttime curfew also was in place, apparently to block extremist groups that plant roadside bombs under cover of darkness.

Iraqis passed through checkpoints and police cordons to vote at thousands of polling sites – in schools, offices and civic centers – stretching from the foothills in the far north to the Persian Gulf in the south. In many places, women teachers and other civilians were recruited to help search for possible female suicide bombers.

In the Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, Iraqi police and army manned a series of checkpoints – some only 200 yards apart. Stores were closed and the streets cleared of cars.

A group of U.S. soldiers patrolled on foot, but well away from polling centers.

Results are not expected for several days. But it could take weeks of dealmaking to determine which parties have gained control of key areas such as Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated south and former insurgent strongholds of western Anbar province.

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